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Social Justice Unites Israel More Effectively Than Nationalism

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Israel is in the midst of a fascinating process. On the one hand, for the last two years, the governing coalition has proposed, and partially passed, an unprecedented series of nationalist laws in the Knesset. On the other hand, in the last six weeks, a wave of protests has swept through Israel demanding social justice. These protests have generated unprecedented support: up to 87 percent of Israelis support its cause, and hundreds of thousands took to the streets in its demonstrations.

These two phenomena can be seen as two ways of addressing one of Israel's most pressing problems. In ways that may be difficult to understand from the outside, Israeli society and its polity have moved towards increasing fragmentation. As opposed to the picture Israel's right wing tries to paint, it goes way beyond the tensions between Jews and Arabs; it reaches deep into Israel's Jewish citizenry. The National-religious right and liberals hardly have any values in common. Lieberman's right-wing but secular constituency is profoundly opposed to Jewish ultra-orthodoxy with its theocratic ambitions -- and the list could be continued along cultural, ethnic and religious fault-lines in Israeli society.

The nationalist attempt to unify Israel is exemplified by Lieberman's loyalty oath bill and Kadima MK Avi Dichter's proposal to define Israel as the state of the Jewish people. These laws are ostensibly meant to prevent the possibility of Israel's turning into a bi-national state.

They assume that the threat to Israel comes from either its Arab minority, or from Palestinians in the territories and around the world. This attempt to unify Israel through a perceived common enemy (a standard right-wing tactic around the world) is bound to fail, because it doesn't solve the roots of disunity of Israel's Jewish citizenry.

There is no commonality whatsoever between what Avigdor Lieberman and what Shas Leader Eli Yishai mean by 'Jewish.' For the latter it means strict adherence to Halakha and to a traditional way of life. What it means for Lieberman is highly unclear: he certainly doesn't want an orthodox hegemony, and he reverts to a nationalist definition of 'Jewish,' not shared by most of the world's Jews, who are largely liberal in outlook, and opposed to nationalist ideals. The truth is that there is no accepted definition of Jewish, and shouting the term doesn't make it any clearer.

Neither is there any accepted definition of Zionism: For the majority of settlers it means to insist on the eternal right of Jews for sovereignty over the greater land of Israel; and for some it means that Israel should be a Jewish theocracy.

But for a sizable plurality of Israelis, Zionism means Herzl's dream of a state that adheres strictly to the ideals of liberal democracy in which religion is strictly divorced from politics.

Nationalist laws try to create by decree what no longer exists in reality: a unifying vision. Israel is far too diverse in its ethnic and religious composition to allow for terms like 'Jewish' and 'Zionist' to provide the missing unity.

The social protests have succeeded in uniting Israel much more successfully than the nationalists: in some polls, they received 87 percent support for their demand. They want Israel to be a decent society, as defined by Israel-Prize winning philosopher Avishai Margalit: a decent society's institutions do not humiliate its members. But Israel has become a humiliating society to all its members.

The weaker strata are deprived of the barest necessities. And the middle classes are deprived from the most basic demand of a decent society: to achieve a respectable life in return for long investment in education and hard work.

The protests call for a society that keeps the disadvantaged out of dire straits; and that provides the gifted with a chance to succeed; not by making (and losing) billions through financial machinations, as Israel's tycoons do, but by producing actual value.

The demand for decency is brushed aside by many of Israel's politicians, who always claim that today's emergency does not leave energy and resources for tomorrow's society. External threats are used as pretext to maintain the current system that puts short-term political advantage over long-term investment.

If anybody dares saying that Israel needs transparent and accountable government and legislation, many of our politicians say dismissively "what do you think -- that this is Europe?'

Of course it isn't: Israel is located in one of the world's most difficult neighborhood; regimes crumble all around; and terror attacks always create the option for Netanyahu and Co to say 'enough with the games, children; now we deal with life and death!'

It is time to resist this nationalist tactic. Even in a difficult neighborhood Israel can strive towards the ideal Europe endeavored to implement since WWII: combining capitalist productivity with a social safety network. And even if Israel requires far more resources for its security than Europe does, this can no longer serve as an excuse for corrupt governance and for the exploitation of those who create value by their work.

The protests have succeeded where legislators have failed. No amount of propaganda can cover up that the social protests have created more unity through the demand that Israel become a decent society for all its citizens than nationalist rhetoric and legislation.

An earlier Version of this Post has appeared in the Author's Blog "Strenger than Fiction" on Haaretz.com